Magazine article National Defense

The Thin Watery Line: Plans under Way to Beef Up Porous Northern Border

Magazine article National Defense

The Thin Watery Line: Plans under Way to Beef Up Porous Northern Border

Article excerpt


DETROIT -- Capt. Fred Midgette, commander of the Detroit Coast Guard Sector, pointed outside his office window to a white pleasure boat that was speeding down the river.

"That guy could be in Canada before I could get a boat out of the slip if we were. interested in stopping him," he said.

Across the Detroit River is the city of Windsor, Ont. Between the two cities is an invisible line in the middle of the water marking the boundary between the two nations. At some points, only a few hundred yards separate the two river banks. It is a stark contrast to the U.S. southwest.

The southern border with Mexico is infamous for the thousands of economic migrants who illegally attempt to cross into the United States every month, murderous drug cartels that move contraband using automatic weapons and miles and miles of unforgiving desert that can claim the lives of those who don't respect it.

There's none of that here, of course. But the roughly 3,100-mile-long northern border comes with its own unique set of problems. Smuggling and illegal crossings occur here as well--the key difference is that it is bi-directional. People, drugs and money flow in both directions. And about 2,400 miles of the 3,100 are waterways.

"We can't have a wall here. It just doesn't work like that," said Midgette.

Nevertheless, the Department of Homeland Security and the Obama administration have signaled their intent to send more resources to the vast northern border. DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and her deputy Jane Holl Lute made trips to Canada to discuss border issues during their first few weeks in office. The funds spent here on sensor technology so far has been minuscule compared to the southwest. Congress added $20 million to install cameras along a stretch of river north of here and near Buffalo, N.Y., in the last budget. Now the new administration has proposed the same amount for 2010. Customs and Border Protection recently opened the Great Lakes Air and Marine Branch north of Detroit--the first of five planned such facilities that will comprise its Northern Border Air Wing.

Construction on the first permanent emplacement of cameras in the Detroit region is due to begin late this summer along the St. Clair River, a body that connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Huron to the north.

Border Patrol Special Agent Kurstan Rosberg and two other agents cruised on a 25-foot boat on a weekday morning along a stretch of the river that will be monitored by the new cameras by the end of the year, if all goes well.

The shores are dotted by wilderness, small towns, private homes and parking lots for small businesses. Only a few hundred yards separates the two nations here. Smugglers can dart across the water, unload contraband, or human cargo, to waiting accomplices on the U.S. side and be gone in a few short minutes. Or visa versa.

"That's the problem really. The places where they can unload are unlimited," Rosberg said. "It doesn't have to be a marina."

Generally, smugglers move Canadian grown marijuana, called B.C. bud, into the United States. Cocaine tends to travel north. Migrants or criminals who wish to avoid legal ports of entry cross in both directions. Another complication is the climate. The area transforms in the winter, meaning some lakes and rivers are frozen. That makes it easier for smugglers or migrants to cross on foot and harder for law enforcement to move around.

While this weekday saw a few scattered recreational fishermen, a summer weekend on these waters is another matter. There can be thousands of pleasure craft on the nearby Great Lakes, along the St. Clair River, and the Detroit River that connects Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie. Smugglers often use these busy weekends as cover. They quietly slip in among the recreational boaters, then cross the international line. Rosberg said the new cameras maybe be able to detect this kind of activity. …

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